To the Editor:
I read with sadness the news story about the violence at the Trump rally on the Meadow Street section of Route 13. There are many causes for anxiety and anger today. Not just the immediate election, but deeper social, economic, and cultural issues, demonstrate that we clearly need to work towards, as Lincoln said, a more perfect union. Our systems are not working the way we need them to: a country where all people feel safe, have opportunity and structural racism is addressed. No question, there is much to protest about. As is stated on a local public art mural honoring Frederick Douglass, “Power concedes nothing without a demand.” So protest is called for. But what we are seeing is now going beyond protest.
A key piece of American success has been the simple idea of how to deal with people you disagree with. In our large and diverse country, you cannot help but be surrounded by people holding differing viewpoints. Small “d” democracy depends upon making it work. Respectful disagreement must be the rule. And yes, I say this in the face of the President’s awful goading behavior where he is trying to make the anger and division worse. One problem is that when people go beyond speech, and resort to grabbing and burning signs and then fighting, they have already lost the argument. They will persuade no one.
And worse, these protesters on Meadow Street hurt people. While you may disagree with and oppose Trump, these citizens are our neighbors. Those who hurt these people, hurt their neighbors. For those who came out to protest against Trump and stood in support of this violence, you need to own that harm to your neighbors as well. The result is a less perfect union. The only achievement is more disagreement with less hope of understanding each other.
I see a parallel in the recent damage to public spaces and public art, including the Black Lives Matter work on Plain Street. I have been told that now is not the time to object to this damage as it appears to put concern about property rights ahead of peoples’ rights. This I do not understand. If we cannot stand up in the present for the artists who have worked to make our community more beautiful and expressive, I am not sure we can stand up for much. And defending property rights and peoples’ rights are not mutually exclusive. It is possible to care for and support both. To the argument that disrupting civic life and wrecking stuff is necessary to “be heard,” I say the message you are sending is entirely counter-productive to your professed goal. When you deface a mural, as with dislocating a woman’s shoulder, your message is that you do not care about others. I hear selfishness, cynicism, and the denial of community. I see a pattern of increasing provocations is emerging, and fear that it leads nowhere good. But, there is another way.
In fact, I can tell you that a central issue at the heart of these protests, police reform, has been heard and is being talked about. Tompkins County and the City of Ithaca governments have joined together to review and re-envision our police departments within the broader criminal justice system. People of good faith from across the social, economic, and political spectrum have already stepped up to participate. Community forum presentations have started and are ongoing. We are right now working on how to get the broadest and most open public dialogue we can possibly achieve in the face of a pandemic. If you wish to “be heard” we wish to hear you.
While the ship has started moving, it promises to be a long and at times slow journey. A lot of what will be talked about might seem obvious and boring. Government is often obvious and boring. It is seldom as active or entertaining as street protests. But if you wish to “be heard” we wish to hear you. Very little about this project will be easy. It is quite likely that any conclusions reached will represent consensus and compromise. There will be no total victory for one side or the other. But if you wish to “be heard” we wish to hear you. While it is likely that we cannot solve all problems, I have some optimism that we can try to move our corner of the country a little closer to a more perfect union. This effort is far more valuable and productive than hurting someone on the street. Help us.
Tompkins County Legislator Rich John
City of Ithaca